What a year (2023): postcards, gaslighting and a family meeting…

I thought the craze for round-robin Christmas letters had passed. However, over the last few years we’ve received one more or less every festive season from someone merely signing herself “xxxx” (though the number of “x”s is not always the same, which perhaps gives you an insight). I have no idea who she is but she’s certainly been, as she would say, first in clover, then through the mill, and now hopefully out the other side – or is she?. Increasingly hair-raising stuff…well, I’ll let you be the judge. 

Christmas 2015

What a year! First the move in April – of course that went wrong, mainly because of some stupid muddle about feet and metres with the carpets. S says he wouldn’t pay a penny so that’s all still up in the air. Then the Polish builders were here for ages, in fact S thinks they had something to do with the fire (I’m sure you heard about the fire!!!). The insurance co. said they couldn’t understand how a fire had started in the bathroom, so S has had to sue. I thought about telling them of that fire in the chalet loo in Austria (Pippa and Beaky will know what I mean!) but decided against.

Come May it transpired Fiona needed an operation on her teeth so we were back and forth to the hospital for weeks. To make matters worse S’s car was stolen from right outside the house – turned out it was used in a jewel raid! At first the police thought S was involved, but he wasn’t (no diamonds for me!!) but we still haven’t got it back. Evidence they say, so S had to sue. The man we used was sinister Welshman with buck teeth and a t-t-terrible stammer and he wasn’t any good. It came to court and the police said they had reason to believe S was drunk – of course he’s hardly touched a drop since that scene in the butchers last year but we had to let sleeping dogs lie (sl-sl-sleeping d-d-dogs lie as the solicitor put it). S is now s-s-suing the solicitor.

So, back to Fiona’s teeth! Total nightmare, just as her GCSEs were coming up. Only my 4×4 banger to transport her to and fro due to jewel-theft business. Then she needed an operation. BUPA obviously weren’t interested – and have you any idea what dentists charge? Obviously we had to be extra careful because of her flute (teeth v. important for flute, apparently). Then the operation went wrong and she needed six teeth out – she’s only sixteen, poor girl. Obviously the ombudsman didn’t want to know so we’re sending her to a clinic in Johannesburg where there’s this new technique, costing an arm and a leg. S did a sponsored parachute jump to raise money but broke his ankle, so now he’s off work and suing the pilot.

Usual au pair problems continue – the latest the agency sent was Unpronouncableski from Ukraine, who immediately got pregnant. Before that there was another one who lasted five minutes before Hugo bit her and she fled in tears! No one to replace the famous Magda, alas – 18 hours a day, worked like a Trojan (and H never bit her!). She’s back in Gdansk now with Piotr (remember Piotr at the party last year when he tried to carry all those canapés!!)

On a positive note, my father won his case against that Frenchman. £10,000! Mind you, he hasn’t got it yet, and does have to send the photos back. Plus S’s mother’s hip has given her a new lease of life and she’s even bought that Fiat that Giles was trying to sell her at Sophie B’s christening (well done Giles!)

Anyway, the main thing this year of course has been the children. Where to start? Tamsin’s Spanish stood us in good stead in Peru this summer (Maccu Piccu fantastic at sunset), and of course the men were all over her! Blonde, 5’ 10”, bilingual, 26” waist (grrr!) who can blame them? Of course her violin is the no. 1 thing and it looks like the RAM beckons. Second interview next week, bur Sir L said she’s as good as in. Blissy boyfriend in the background (of course we’ve hardly been able to catch more than a glimpse) who’s writing a novel if you please (at 19!!), probably about all our wacky goings-on I wouldn’t be surprised!!

Notwithstanding the teeth thing, Fiona got straight As in her GCSEs (12 of them, bless!) which Mrs Prentice says is the best they’ve ever had. Mrs P went to Somerville, Oxon, and has made a few calls, so here’s hoping! All that money spent with the Montasorri (never remember how to spell that!!) obviously not wasted even though Stella the headmistress used to drink like a fish.

Ben is ten (easy to remember!). Captain of cricket, football and rugger, so we’re off every weekend, rain or shine, to watch his team win (which they usually do!). Mr Brown says he’s a natural. Terrible struggle between Mr B and his Gifted Pupil Assistant who says that he’s her best maths student in 18 years – so that’s another long day every Monday and Thursday to get him to Maths Club and Chess Club! Grandmaster Ben one of these days!

Hugo still very much Hugo! Seven last week and never stops, always trying to keep up with his more gifted siblings! Having three gifted children is a bit of a curse (as the headmistress reminds me), but poor H does his best to make me feel like a normal mum! The biting is still a problem (at least we don’t have the cat any more!). A bit clingy still (you know how men are, girls!!) and of course the stammer doesn’t help. Still, the good news is that the stomach problem has cleared up (remember last Easter!) as have most of the boils.

Do write and let us know how your talented (!) (?) children are getting on and whether your “better (!) half” is, like S, slumped in front of Top Gear with a bottle of Scruttocks Old Repulsive. Only hope his ankle heals before we jet off to the St Lucia for Xmas!!!

xxxx

Christmas 2016

All we got from XXXX this year was a postcard postmarked “Mahé, Seychelles” which, as far we can tell, read:

Hi Peeps, trying to do the personal touch this year!!! Hear [sic] we are in [illegible] Island – 33º! Better than S Ken, I bet! No Xmas pud but [illegible] of rum punches and [illegible]. See you in 2017.

xxxx

Christmas 2017

Once again, what a year! It seems like at least two years since I’ve written to you all properly – then I look it my diary and find it was! 2016 a bit of a blurrrr, mainly due to the new biz (see below)! Also, we were away in Nov and Dec 2016, the Seychelles being warmer than dreary old South Ken.

First things first – I’m sure you’re agog for news of the children! Tamsin is working for Kohnmann’s, the art people, and has been promoted twice if you please in the last year! Now she’s Assistant Deputy (I always get this bit wrong so deep breath) Trans-European Procurement Advisor which means among other things she has to jet off to Berlin and Madrid at the drop of a hat. Violin taking a back seat (shame after squillions spent on lessons at the Menuhin School). She said the other day ‘money was more important than Mozart,’ which is obviously priceless and terribly clever. Still, it’s her decision and the last thing I want her to think is that we’d like her to pay back all the bloody money and refund us for the hours we spent driving her to and from Cobham for lessons! Only joking, Tam!

Fiona’s teeth problems now behind her and she sailed through A-levels with A, A, A and…wait for it…A* – so not too shabby! She’s agonising between the Sorbonne and Oxford. Simon’s brother (remember ‘bald’ Pete at the fancy-dress party at Goodwood, Beaky!) knows the admissions tutor at Keble so that should be that if she decides for dreaming spires! Otherwise it’s Gay Paree (can one say ‘gay’ any more?!).

Ben is 12 and continues to excel in class and on the sports field – still captain of everything (including chess) and turning into a dashing young man (grrr!). Mr Allen, the scary head, says he looks like Simon (I don’t see it!) but maybe he’s just being polite as it’s Simon’s name on the cheques every term!

Poor Hugo struggles on, still trying to keep up with all the rest of us! Nine last month and now happily (?) ensconced at prep school. The Special Needs department is really very good considering he’s their first. They didn’t want to take him at all but Simon put his foot down – it was a no-brainer for us as it’s just down the road from the country cott. in Suffolk so ideal for exeats. Extras racking up, particularly after he set fire to his school uniform in the first week:  then there was an awful row when he let the school pig into the headmaster’s garden. Hell to pay and huge bills all round. I think he’s happier now but he hasn’t written for a while (he’s even worse than me at writing letters!!)

As for Simon, I told you about all the legal shenanigans last time. Everything much the same. He never got any money off the pilot after the parachuting fiasco so he’s suing his solicitor who he said gave him the wrong advice. As a result he had to find a new one so he could go after the insurance company, who still haven’t paid a bean after the fire. Simon says that once they’re threatened with court they’ll settle but no sign yet. The new solicitor’s advising him to drop it, which of course for S is like a red rag to a bull! What with that and the business with those Frenchmen and the police ombudsman after the thing with our car and the jewel raid, he’s got four cases on the go! S says it’ll be five if the new lawyer doesn’t pull his finger out.

As for little old me, last year I decided I didn’t see why I should be the only one without her own blog. SO, girls (and boys, natch!) if you want to keep up to date with our wacky goings-on just dial up YummyMuddyMumsBlognet.com (muddy cos of horses and dogs, mum cos I’m a mum, yummy – durgh!).

Thanks to Cat and Pippa who helped come up with the fab name (with the aid of a lot of Chardonnay!) There’s a lovely Polish man called Zyzrwrzloz (that’s what it sounds like anyway) doing the website – he’s not cheap but for my priceless prose (?!) he says it needs to be the best thing since sliced bread so money well spent (and being spent!). He’s been on it for over a year but it’s never quite finished (like his cousin who put in our boiler last year!!) Thanks too to Becky and dishy Dan who help get my punctuation and words the right way round – when I’m on fire it just pours out and it’s soooo boring to stop and check! Plus the wonderful Maddie who does the pics, silly me never being sure if I’m pointing the camera the right way (remember the sauna in Sardinia, Trish!). So, quite a team!

It got 52 hits last month – I’m setting sights high and hoping to hit the big three figures next! I expect you all to rally round and sing its praises. I don’t want to let the cat out but rumour has it that A Certain Person at Vogue (Gemma knows who I mean – thanks for the intro, Gem!) – might be A Little Bit Interested – naturally I’m not doing it for the money but of course it would be yum to have my little scribblings in print! Fingers (and toes!) crossed!

Anyway do write (or blog!) saying how you’re all getting on. I may not be able to reply at once what with everything that’s going on – it’s all busy busy busy here. And remember, anything you say could end up in Vogue – so keep it clean (that means you, Fi!)

xxx

Christmas 2018

I said ‘what a year’ last year but this time I mean it. The worst. Ever. And still nearly a month to go. Where to begin? OK – let’s begin with Simon. God, I can hardly bear to type his name.

I told you last time that he was involved in four court cases. Well, by April he’d lost every single one, two with costs awarded against. Then, being the idiot he was and is, he went on social media telling everyone from here to Timbuktu his solicitor was a crook. A warning from the solicitor arrived by recorded delivery. Simon kept going. Then a desist and refrain thing. Simon still kept going. Then a writ for defamation against which Simon, not being able to find a lawyer, defended himself – and lost that as well. I knew nothing about this last bit at the time, not even the fact that he’d been ordered to pay £100,000 damages.

He also started to behave increasingly oddly – mad glint in his eyes quite a lot of the time and prone to strange rants about things that made no sense. One moment he was waving wads of money around, the next he was complaining that he didn’t have any, that he’d have to “sort things out with Tommy,” whoever he was. Now I come to think about it, he always seemed to have a cold, which didn’t make me inclined to hug him (cruel but true). Didn’t think much about why all this might be as I was too busy trying to keep family life going, like the eternal wash-spin-dry that it is.

Meanwhile, his company was going under as well. Obviously he didn’t mention anything about to me either. I was just his bloody wife and the mother of his four children, just the person who’d tried to keep everything together while he was going around playing Mr Big Man in the City and the law courts and everywhere else.

These two facts were revealed to me on the same evening – Saturday 28th of July, in case any of you are wondering why I’ve been a bit bonkers ever since. This was, however, just a prelude to main announcement which was that he was leaving me. Long silence. Who for? I asked. Does it matter? he replied. I threw a vase at him (missed, unfortunately – another wedding present up the spout, smashed to smithereens against the fireplace).

Of course it bloody matters, I said. I probably know her.

Did I know her?

Eventually he said that I did.

Well, who was it?

Step forward Gemma, who this time last year was my closest, bestest friend and we were plotting how to get my blog published by Vogue. Christ, what an age ago that seems. One of the things about Gemma, apart from her tits, is that she’s rich. Even the stupid little wife that I was put two and two together and told him it wouldn’t last five minutes once she learned he’d pissed all his money up the wall.

In fact, I said, I’ll tell her myself. Bit of a fight over the mobile but finally locked myself in the loo, got through to Gemma and told her that he didn’t have a bean apart from what we got for the house, so what did she think he was after? I told her a few other things as well.

It got worse. Double-fronted house in South Ken, even when divided in half, should cater for most people’s needs. Turned out not because the bastard had mortgaged it, again behind my back, to cover up the holes in his business. Cut a long story short, by the time that had been sorted (September) there was about £8,000 left over.

Only satisfaction from the whole thing is that Gemma did dump him PDQ when she asked him if what I’d said was true. Of course, that means I’ve ruined his life. He told me that a few days later and also that he hoped I’d die of AIDS. He was a bit drunk, but even so. I said the only person I was going to have caught AIDS off was him, via Gemma or whoever. Bit of an ugly all in all.

So, what about the children? I’m sorry to put a downer on your December, girls and boys, but this doesn’t get any better.

Tamsin, who seemed to be doing so well at that art place Kohnmann’s, left earlier this year in a bit of a hurry, just before Simon dropped his bombshell. There’s a man there, Sir Courtney Someone-something, who seems to be an absolute shit and I can’t help feeling he had something to do with it.

She says she’s now working for someone Terribly Important in the art world in Prague. I suppose she’s telling the truth but I’m afraid I don’t trust anyone anymore, not even my eldest child. She’s 22 so of course knows everything. She says that I’ve brought all my problems on myself and that she’s “had enough of Brexit Britain”. Well, haven’t we all? She should try living in it, I said. No chance, she told me – if I thought she was coming back to dig me and “my shitty father” – the only thing we could agree on though I didn’t get a chance to say so – out of our self-inflicted hole then forget it. She had her own life now, etc etc.

Then, last month, Fiona had left Oxford without any warning and flitted over to the USA to join some cult – they can sue me if they like for calling them that but I haven’t got any money so who cares – called the Children of the Sun. I’ve only heard from her once and that was mainly to say that she now identifies as “fluid binary non-gender”, whatever that means. Also, I learned I was the reason she hadn’t discovered her true self, that I’d controlled her, ruined her etc. Nothing since. I’ve tried to track her down but no luck.

So, if any of you have heard from either of them, please ask them to give me a ring just to say they’re all right.

Ben had just started at his prep school and, by some miracle, scumbag Simon had paid the fees for the year so he’s fine for the moment. God knows what will happen come September. Simon is now living with his father who’s a terrific rugby jock – God how I’ve grown to hate that game – so Ben seems set to spend all his exeats and holidays with them. I go up to see him play from time to time but he’s so cold to me – and only 13. Where did he learn that?

The only consolation is that I saw S there once at the other side of the pitch and Ben was not much better to him. So, most of my time is spent worrying about three of my children. Only five minutes ago I was teaching them how to tie their laces and now they don’t care if I burst into flames.

Thank God for Hugo. He’s just turned 11 and he’s the only one who seems to have any time for me at all. We’re in Acton now, tiny two-bed flat that I’ve got until Fi comes back from Australia – thank you so much, Fi, you’re a complete mensch. He’s just started at the secondary school down the road. I thought it would be hard for him after prep but he seems to be loving it. Fingers crossed and I hope that lasts.

Also, being away from his siblings has done him the world of good and he’s – can I say this? – blossomed. Seems happy, lots of friends. Still, now and then I find myself watching him, looking to see if he might have his father’s eyes. Puberty will be the real test. God knows when that will arrive or what it will bring. But, for now, that’s the good thing. The only good thing.

I’m doing some odd jobs to make ends meet – as many of you know, Lloyds wiped out mum and dad so I got nothing from them and Uncle George was only able to lend me £5,000 before he died last month. Would you believe that I’m working for a local estate agent for a few hours a week showing perfectly prosperous-looking people round houses a quarter the size of the one I was living in five months ago which I can tell they can’t afford to buy?

Aside from fretting about the girls and, slightly less so, Ben, I’m sick with worry about where we’re going to go when Fi comes back. Now Hugo’s settled and for the first time happy it would break my heart if we had to move and start again.

The trouble is, peeps, I’ve realised I’m no good at anything, not really. I always thought that S would provide, like he promised, so I never bothered to get to grips with anything like money or business (much good it did him). This estate agent thing is my first job since the chalet. I’ve failed as a wife and as a mother for three out of four. My last twenty years has been based on lies and wishful thinking. And, to top it all, I’m now having to grapple with Universal Credit – nobody understands it, by the way – which only a few months ago I thought only happened to Other People. It doesn’t.

For a moment I thought of deleting all this as I can see now that I don’t know all of you as well as I should for all this information. Then I thought, the hell with it. You’ve heard from me when things were on the up and now you’ve heard when they’re not. I don’t think I’ll do one next year. But if any of you know of a cheap two-bed in Acton or Acton-ish, please let me know. Or if you have word from my girls. Nothing else really matters any more.

 

Christmas 2019

I think I said last year that 2018 had been the worst. I was wrong.

I don’t know where to start with this one. Actually, I do. 1st of January. Where better? That was the day 2019 started going wrong and it’s been steeply downhill from there.

So, eight in the morning, yours truly a teeny bit overhung and there’s this crazy hammering on the door. Turns out to be the bastard Simon, blabbering about some documents that he says he’s lost or I’ve stolen – to be honest, I couldn’t work out what he was talking about. He always had this slightly mad look, usually when litigation was in the wind. I took all this to mean that this time the writs were flying in the other direction and someone’s suing him: god knows why as he hasn’t any money. Or, if he has, he’s not giving me any.

He also looked really awful: pasty face, bloodshot eyes, cracked lips. It was eight in the morning on new year’s day but even so. He seemed to have been up drinking all night. Ever since that fiasco in the butchers five years ago, heavy drinking didn’t used to be one of his vices. Mind you, I realise now how little I knew him. He could have been up to anything when we were married and I’d never have guessed. In fact, of course, he was, and I didn’t.

Anyway, yes, it seemed he was being sued and this piece of paper was all that stood between him and utter ruin. He got quite nasty after a while, making wild threats about my being in league with ‘the Greek bloke’, whoever the hell he was. He tried to barge in. I tried to stop him. He started yelling. A few curtains were twitching across the road. 8am, remember.

Then Hugo came down and, very bravely, told S to leave me alone. Being ordered about by his youngest child made Simon completely wild. There was more pushing and shoving – anyway, the next thing Hugo fell over, awkwardly. This quietened Simon down for long enough for me to get Hugo inside. After a bit more hammering and shouting he left, not before one of the neighbours had come out and started having a go at him. Meanwhile, Hugo couldn’t move his arm. Off to hospital and turned out it was a compound fracture.

Came back at lunchtime and who should be sitting in the living room but Fi (it’s her flat, you’ll remember), home from Australia six months earlier than expected. Turned out this gorgeous hunk she’d fallen for ditched her on Christmas Day.

I opened a bottle of wine – so much for that new year’s resolution – and we drunk it, quite quickly. Fi then told me that she’d need the flat back. Would the end of the week be enough notice? Then she had to dash as she was staying with her mum who couldn’t remember what she was meant to be doing half the time. Feeling a bit that way myself I sat down and had a good cry.

Half an hour later the police turned up, having been contacted by the neighbour. Did I want to press charges against Simon? In a way this would have been be quite fun but I thought best not. He seems to have enough on his plate (not that I haven’t) and I couldn’t see what good this would do me, or Hugo. The policeman was rather cross, like a double-glazing salesman who’s made his best pitch and you say “no thanks.”

Thank heavens I managed to find somewhere else, still in Acton, but it’s a poky little place and the people across the road have shouty, sweary parties about four times a week. The big problem was Hugo’s arm. It won’t straighten properly and he can’t play the guitar any more, which was turning into his thing. So he’s mad as hell at Simon as well. It’s no better, or wasn’t the last time I saw him.

That was October, nearly two months ago. You might ask why; and why this letter is being sent from Thailand. I’ll come back to that.

Ben is still living with Simon, who’s still living with his father. Fortunately Ben is off at school most of the time (grandad paying, though god knows how). Now that Simon and I have gone our separate ways, I can see now (and can say now) what an awful old pompous bully Peter is. Anyway, Ben seems to like it there, mainly because he seems to be allowed to do exactly what he wants. Peter always adored Ben and for some reason loathed Hugo. I’m beginning to think Simon was the same.

I’d love to be able to tell him that Hugo isn’t really his child but it wouldn’t be true, more’s the pity. I was faithful to that bastard for twenty years and look what good it did me. Wish I’d said “yes” to that gorgeous friend of Pippa’s when we were in Spain. He probably would have turned into a complete bastard as well but at least it would have been something different.

Don’t ask me what Ben thinks about this because he never gets in touch and doesn’t reply to my emails or texts (until yesterday).

As for Fiona, still no real news. I told you that she hightailed it off from Oxford to join this crazy cult. I get the feeling she hasn’t been allowed to write before now. They didn’t make much sense: rather like Simon on new year’s day – just as angry and paranoid but a little bit madder. I also had one letter from a friend of hers – God knows how he got the address – saying that she’d written to everyone she knew to tell them to come over and join up, and that he was planning to do so. I think he was thanking me. I don’t know why. What for?

I did think of trying to go over and find her but (a) I don’t have any money (b) how would I know where she was and (c) what if she didn’t want to come back? And come back to what? Oxford probably wouldn’t take her again – and what can Simon or I offer in the way of a home life?

Perhaps that what she was running away from. I wish I could. Simon doesn’t seem interested in his daughter’s plight or flight or whatever it is one bit. “It’s something she has to work out for herself,” he told me pompously a few months ago, sounding just like his father. “Work out?’ I screamed. ”This isn’t a piece of fucking maths homework!” Then he hung up.

Right. So. Tamsin. Fasten your seat belts. You probably read about it in the papers but Tam is in the Klong Prem Prison in Bangkok serving 15 years for drug trafficking. I’ve been here for the last seven weeks, during the trial (if you can call it that), which happened last week. Thank god for Mike, an old friend – well, acquaintance really, I’m surprised he recognised me – whom I ran into outside the prison with me weeping my eyes out. He lives out here and has been putting me up (and up with me). I can’t pretend I’ve been a happy guest.

There are two very different accounts of what happened: Simon’s, which makes no sense and anyway keeps changing; and mine. The short version of mine is that, not content with maiming one of his sons, spoiling the other one rotten and ignoring his younger daughter, he then decides to turn his elder one into a drug mule. There must be a special circle of hell reserved for fathers who do this, though Dante seems to keep quiet about it.

I was surprised when he arranged for her to have a holiday there after she walked out on her job with Sir Courtney Inchbold-Grist – or Inchbold-Grope as she called him – and the even bigger weirdo in Prague but it turns out this was just a last desperate throw of the dice to clear his debts. Someone talked or did a double-cross or whatever – anyway, the police were waiting for Tam, mob-handed. All the ‘presents’ that he’d given her for his ‘friends’ turned out to be packed with heroin.

I can’t describe how awful this time has been. Nothing comes close. As for the prison, don’t ask. Really. They might let her serve some of the sentence in England but that won’t be for years. I see her when I can but I can’t stay here for ever, sweet though Mike has been.

Hugo needs me as well. He’s been living with my cousin Mary in Godalming which has meant another change of school. She’s very discreet (too discreet) when we email but it seems as if some of his – what’s the phrase? – ‘behavioural issues’ are coming back and the head is muttering about ‘exclusion’ and ‘social services.’ Hormones to look forward to as well. Looks like yet another new school beckons. Where, though? Acton? Godalming? Bangkok?

Simon, of course, fled – whereabouts unknown and wanted in three continents – so Ben is now alone with Peter who seems to be showing signs of getting tired of the responsibility and expense. I know this because, out of the blue, Ben texted me yesterday asking how I was and how Tam was. Looks like he’s having second thoughts about throwing in his lot with daddy’s family.

I want to look after him as well but I could never afford the school fees. If by some miracle he came back to me, where would we all live? He and Hugo used to fight like tigers anyway. Would that kick off again? It’s a horrible thought, but the only one of my children who’s (perhaps) remotely happy is Fiona, whom I haven’t seen for 18 months and, if she is happy, it’s probably only because she’s been brainwashed by religious lunatics.

So, peeps, there you have it, diced and sliced. Happy families at work. I’ve promised Hugo he’ll be out of Godalming by Christmas – but to where? I had to give up the job and so also the flat. Maybe I’ll organise for him to come over here, though god knows I’ll pay for that. Or I have to go back, which comes to the same thing. I can’t keep on sponging off Mike. And what to do about Ben? Any ideas?

I’d better post this now as I’m not sure how long things take to get to England. Not that reading this is going to make your Christmas any better. Thinking of December in England make me a bit weepy. Not just the mistletoe and champagne, going back to when the children were young and when we had money, but the hope. I never really got the religious side except in that wishy-washy pick-and-mix way that Anglicans do, but it was at least something to build up to and look forward to with, come 1 Jan, the chance of turning over a new leaf. I know this seems a bit mad but I am trying to think of you all and really, really hope you have a lovely time, wherever you are and whoever you’re with. It’s sad how many of you I’ve lost touch with in the last 18 months. If you have a moment, do drop me a line with your news. In the middle of this huge city I must say that I’ve never, ever felt so completely bereft and alone.

 

Christmas 2020

All we got from XXXX this year was a postcard postmarked “Bangkok, Thailand” which, as far we can tell, read:

Covid is shit – even worse is the bit afterwards, or it is for me. Have you escaped the [illegible] virus? Will write soon.

xxxx

Christmas 2021

So, gosh – two years since I last wrote. The time since then has been a mixture of hell on earth, a spy novel, a rom-com and god knows what else.

OK – quick recap. December 2019 saw me in Bangkok facing up to the fact that one of my daughters had been brainwashed by a religious cult and the other was a convicted drug mule, plus that my husband was a fugitive from justice and wanted by Interpol (if it still exists). Meanwhile, one son was slowly going mad in Godalming and his older brother driving his grandfather mad in Wiltshire. I was like a leaf in a gale with no money and no idea of where I ought to go or which problem I should try to sort out. As a result I didn’t sort any of them and dithered and dawdled and cried a lot. Mike, with whom I’ve been staying in Bangkok, was completely wonderful throughout all this. I’ll come back to Mike in a minute.

Anyway – dither, dither…then, in early February there was this rumour of a nasty bug that was going around. Overnight – bang, lockdown, Thai-style. Most of the city closed for weeks at a time, armed police roaming about even more than usual, vigilante groups, informing on dirty Chinese or westerners who might be breaking curfew ,and manning barricades around areas which had or were rumoured to have a lot of cases. Visions of five thousand years in prison for curfew-breaking, perhaps in the cell next to Tam, rose up before me so I tended to stay put. This went on for most of last year.

In November, I actually caught Covid. Not too bad at there time – a bit like a cold and a bad hangover and I’ve had that combo often enough. It was the month or so afterwards that was the killer. Apparently there’s this thing called Long Covid which can lay you out for…well, obviously no one knows how long. Maybe I was lucky, or maybe my mind gave my body a good talking to and said “snap out of it, you’ve got Tam to sort out,” but by the end of Jan I was fine. Mike would say it was the diet he put me on which seemed mainly to be composed of fish, lime juice, garlic and very hot chillis. That which does not kill me makes me stronger…

That aside, the whole Covid thing at least made me realise that it wasn’t just me that had had a previously OK life turned upside down by something they hadn’t seen coming. We were all in the same boat. A bit less weepy after that, which was good.

So – what did I do then? Well, quite a lot as it happened.

The first thing, which will surprise those of you who didn’t think I was anything to write home about in the brains department, is that I seem to have learned Thai. Mike speaks it pretty fluently after five years here and there were a lot of work and social Zoom chats going on in the background. It was odd but I started to find I could recognise, repeat and understand phrases so he got a group of people together to talk to me. Intensive was the word. A couple of them wanted to learn English so I helped with that. That taught me some things, too. For example, I didn’t know what a gerund was. I do now.

Then there was a long chat I had with Ben who’s been living with that toad Simon’s father in Marchmont Peverell or some crazy name like that in Wiltshire. Ben is now a tall and opinionated 17 and, as he told me, the strain of living with his monster of a grandfather was starting to tell on them both. I knew we were due A Serious Talk and was dreading it. To my delight, he got the whole thing about my being out here and Tam and all the rest of it and that my hands were tied. He also said he now saw his father to be a complete shit and that this was one of the few things that he and his grandfather agreed on. I asked if he could hold those thoughts until we could could try to pull everything together. He agreed, which I wasn’t expecting.

A couple of days later he sent me a photo of him with his arm around a drop-dead blonde girl who, it seems, also lives in Marchmont Whatsit. So, that’s the real reason he wants to stick around. Fine. I gave them my blessing for whatever they wanted to get up to, not that he seemed to be asking for it. I hope he’ll stay loved up for long enough for this shitstorm to clear.

Emboldened by this, next call was to my sister Lucy in Godalming. Seems like she and Hugo have reached an understanding: they both leave each other alone and they get on OK. She said he’s only been excluded once this term (which he hadn’t told me about in his infrequent texts). I said I hoped it wasn’t the biting coming back (still remember with horror and shame that speech day about five years ago). She said that it “wasn’t biting, exactly.” I didn’t know what to make of this but then my phone ran out of juice. I told Mike about this and he said that she was in loco parentis now and seemed to be coping so I should leave it at that. On his advice I sent Lucy a text saying that I was glad everything was OK and thanking her for being there. Sleeping dogs for now. Another child crossed off the list.

With Fiona in America I drew a complete blank. Have you ever tried to get in touch with a religious cult on the phone? Not easy. Eventually I spoke to a journalist out there who’d helped me track her down before. He told me that he was still on the case – he’d actually been in the compound about a week before and was pretty sure he’d seen Fi. I don’t know if he was just being kind but it was good enough for me, 8,000 miles away. “In love”, “not biting, actually” and “probably alive” was a lot better than nothing. Had a little cry none the less, more out relief than anything else. Then Mike came in and gave me a hug.

OK, I can hear you asking – what about Mike? Have we done it yet? (I know you too well, Pippa – you’re dying to find out.) Well, what do you think? It’s been a strange time. We’ve been locked up together for months. Just like Tam at the other side of town, Hugo in Godalming, Ben in Wiltshire and Fi somewhere in California., we’re all prisoners one way or another. Even that shit Simon was doubtless cooped up somewhere, sweating with fever and the fear of a knock on the door to expose his usual half-assed alias – which made me feel a lot better about everything. I digress. So, the answer to your question, Pippa, is…?

OK – here’s the big story. I probably shouldn’t be telling you but…

In November we were approached out of the blue by a man called Somchai who said he worked for Thailand’s National Intelligence Agency. Long story short, they wanted Simon. Was I in touch with him? No. Could I help find him? Possibly. Then came the clincher. If I could, then it should be possible to arrange a pardon for Tam who was known to be a dupe in the whole business. Best of all, he said, would be if Simon could be persuaded to go to Vietnam or Laos where it would prove easier to nab him than in many other places. I said I’d have to think about, though I didn’t really.

Well, peeps – at this point yours truly, aided by Mike (who seemed to know a good deal more about finding people on the web than I’d suspected), turned into a kind of Georgina Smiley. I assumed three things: that he’d be attracted to somewhere they spoke Spanish, as he could (sort of – not as good as my Thai); that he’d probably use his middle two names, Peter Francis, as as alias, as he’d rather pathetically done before such as when he was stopped for speeding in France; and that he’s have made some attempt to contact Ben.

So – rang Ben and, feeling a bit of a heel, worked the conversation round to his darling papa. Turned out that, yes, Ben had had an email from him about two weeks ago. Asked if he could forward it to me – sure, Ben said. Was feeling seriously guilty at this point. Email pitched up and Mike got to work, muttering about time stamps, header texts and metadata.

Long story short, seemed it had been sent from somewhere in east Asia, either Taiwan or probably the Philippines. Then Mike asked if I by any chance still knew of anyone he’d been involved with professionally during his mad period between the New Year’s Day dawn raid on my flat in Ealing and Tam’s arrest. Yes, I said, there was a guy called Tommy who Simon had known before and seemed to have been involved in this drug fiasco. Did I know his phone number? Mike asked. No, of course not: though, come to think of it, I recall S saying that it a bugger to dial as it had so many threes. Mike grinned and set to work again.

I went into the kitchen feeling that I’d started an avalanche. I poured myself quite a large glass of white wine. Have you ever tried a Thai Chardonnay? Don’t bother.

For the next couple of days Mike seemed a bit twitchy and spent a lot of his time in his hi-tech office. I felt like I was waiting for something to happen but didn’t know what. I even had a call from Ben saying that he was fine and he couldn’t email because there was something wrong with his account.

At a few minutes before noon on 7 December, one of Mike’s several phones rang: he spoke briefly and passed it to me. It was some bloke with a heavy accent I vaguely recognised thanking me “for the delivery of the merchandise.” I started to say I thought he must have the wrong number when Mike took the phone back and moved into his sanctum, talking in Thai. A couple of minutes later he came out. “That was Somchai. They arrested Simon, aka Peter Francis, in Laos this morning. He says he’s going to keep his end of the bargain about Tam.”

I don’t know if any of you have ever connived in your husband’s rendition in order to secure your daughter’s release from prison. I’m guessing not. It’s complicated. I wept a bit. I laughed a bit. I hugged Mike. I wept a bit more – that sort of stuff.

Within two days it was all sorted out – pardon issued and, at dawn on the third day, she was popped out of the prison gates like a champagne cork, looking completely bewildered. There was a lot of weeping then. Mike scooped us up and we were straight off the the airport. Covid tests were done in a private room before immigration and that was that, all clear. How Tam wasn’t positive after where she’d been was beyond me.

Even more to my surprise, Mike said he was coming with us. Business class for three to Heathrow, Tam alternately dozing, weeping and holding my hand. That was ten days ago.

Since then we’ve been in his flat in Madia Vale. Tam’s spent the days in a kind of blur and the nights having attacks of the screaming ab-dabs. What went on in that prison I haven’t yet heard: but when I tell you that she mentioned “Jailer Joe” several times, I fear the worst. She’s also lost two teeth though I haven’t learned how. All this, and doubtless much more, will emerge in due course. Or not.

Another thing that’s emerged is how Mike managed to pull this stunt. It seemed impressive for someone who worked, as he’d always told me, “on the fringes of IT.” Don’t we all these days? I thought. Seems he’d managed to infer the country from the number of different routings of the email Simon had sent Ben and also from the time difference between when it was sent and when Ben had received it in the UK. He then managed to “intervene” in Ben’s email account – I thought it was called “hack” but said nothing – to send Simon a message saying Tommy wanted to talk to him and giving him a number with lots of threes in it – which was, of course, for a phone Mike had recently got for this purpose. I think he was gambling that Simon would have forgotten the number but remembered all the threes, so believing it to be genuine.

What happened next seemed to be a series of phone conversations between Mike and Simon, Mike disguised as Tommy through some kind of scrambler system that made it sound like he was talking from the bottom of a bowl of cornflakes. This all culminated in Simon being lured over Laos and – just as Tam had been two years before – nabbed at the airport. Mike added that Ben’s email was now OK again: seems he’d done something to it to stop it working as he couldn’t risk Simon asking Ben about the message to call Tommy.

Now, I might not be the sharpest knife in the box but all this seems a bit more than “on the fringes of IT” to me. There was a plan at work but I didn’t feel I could ask what it was. I had what I wanted. I’d said several times that I’d do anything to get her out. Well, I had. Or Mike had. We had. Were we a we? I didn’t know that either.

Ben and Hugo came up for a day last week. it was all a bit odd as none of us had seen each other for ages and their respective arrangements since then – Godalming, grumpy grandad and a Thai jail – had no real points of contact. The question of Simon was mainly avoided. I don’t think any of them had any suspicion of what I’d done and I didn’t want to screw everything up by mentioning it. Even after all the shit he’s put them through, he’s still their father. “I’m not exactly sure where he is,” was the best I could come up with: which was true. Mike stayed in the background. None of them asked about him, either. All in all, everyone was on their best behaviour, which was a first. Not all plain sailing, though. There were some long silences when none of us could quite look the others in the eye or find the right words. I suppose this will pass. Covid-permitting, we’ll be trying again at Christmas.  I’m reconciled to a life of deception. Mind you, that’s what Simon subjected me to.

I said to Mike afterwards that all the Simon stuff will probably come out in the trial anyway. He said – and he couldn’t look at me directly either – that the thought there might not actually be a trial. How he seems to know this stuff I don’t know. Well, I didn’t. I think I might do now.

The elephant in the boudoir was, of course, Fiona. She was still presumed to be in this crazy ashram thing in California. That was going to be my next project. I say “my next”: but had I actually done anything about the Simon/Tam business? Well, yes. I’d made it happen, I suppose. Mike’s role still perplexed me. I know that on a good day, not that there have been many of those recently, I’m completely bewitching, gorgeous and captivating – come on, Pippa, you remember that party in Cambridge with the wonky Italian don – but this seemed like a lot from him to do for a waif he barely knew whom he took in after accidentally running into me outside Tam’s prison. Accidentally? I wonder now.

OK – long and indiscreet letter. But as you can see, there’s a lot I need to process.

Three final things. First, Mike said to me today that he’s heard “from a colleague” that the US government was planning a a clampdown on cults on the west coast as it seemed some Senator’s son had got mixed up with one and so funds were now available. Mike said he might involved on the IT side. My feeling was that they could pick no one better as long as they weren’t too bothered about legalities like impersonating people and closing down email accounts.

The second was a completely chance discovery the other today of a payment advice from “HM Government (SIS)” to Mike for something that looks very like a salary. Not snooping, just came across it while looking for my address book when he was out. This seems to change everything but I’m not sure to what. 

The third thing – and, girls, you might think this is why I’m writing at all – is that yesterday he asked me to move in with him and that, if I wanted to divorce Simon…well. He even said he might be able to get me a job. I think I may have wept again which probaly didn’t really help any of these prospects but at least it postponed agreeing to anything definite.

Trouble is, I don’t know whom I’d be shacking up with, or working with. James Bond? Q? Walter Mitty? But, look – I have four children, all of whom still (I think) need me. I couldn’t even raise the money for a deposit on a bedsit in Crewe at the moment, never mind a house in London. I don’t have a job. I can hardly bear to look at my bank statements but all the important numbers are red. “Security”, I hear someone shouting in one ear; “be careful”, I hear someone whispering in the other. Having thought myself to be happy with one man I realised I didn’t know, can I hitch up with another man I don’t know and hope to be happy with him?

Mind you, if he can help me get Fiona back, I’m not sure I much care. When you have something, you take it for granted. When you lose it, you think about nothing else. I’m not sure, but I think, that even not knowing exactly who he is might be a price worth paying.

xxxx

Christmas 2022

I came across my first Christmas message to y’all in 2015 when I was sorting my out-box the other day.  Seven years ago. This is, so I’m told, the time it takes all you body cells to get replaced. That might explain why I hardly recognised what I said then.

Life then seemed so certain: money, a husband, children permanently locked in the Neverland that runs from the last toilet accident to the first Tequila slammer; then everything changes. Betrayal, bankruptcy, estrangement, homelessness, injury and arrest – that’s how it changed for me.

A few of you have written telling me the shit you’ve had to put up with in this time. For reasons previous comms have hopefully made clear, I’ve been out of the social world I once thought was mine by right. I’m shocked how much I’ve missed in my own pre-occupations (not that I wasn’t pre-occupied before – that gruesome blog idea in 2017, what was I thinking?).

Pippa, I’m really sad Richard left you; Tim and Paul, I’m really sorry you split up; Your company going under, Flick – you put heart and soul into your biz and then along came Mr Covid (I think it is a man) and that knackered that. Amazing that you too ended up in a flat in Acton. Seems that’s where the disinherited of Chelsea and Clapham re-group. Shame we didn’t run into each other, rummaging among the special offers in Tesco.

Worst of all, Trish, I can’t help crying when I think of what you’ve been through – losing a child is the worst thing that can happen to anyone.

Some of you I’ve lost touch with altogether. Beaky, Doctor Mick, Reid, Paula, Marina, Yvonne – what’s happened to you? Yvonne, Yvonne, where have you gone? Marina, Marina, have you see her? Paula, Paula, she’s never in when I call her…

Part of me thought we’d all forever be in a steady orbit of ski chalets, summer Chardonnay and Christmas parties. Never-ending, just like the thing with the kids. But everything changes, usually just when you’re least expecting it.

I said before that I was thinking of you and to please get in touch. Maybe you thought I didn’t mean it. I hope I did. No – I sure as hell did.

So: where was I? This time last year I’d just managed to spring Tam from a Thai jail, with the help of Mike. The collateral damage fell on Simon, who got arrested. He seems now to be in prison in Uruguay – five years for money laundering and fraud, but no mention of drug smuggling. Mike can’t work that out, nor discover exactly why he’s in Uruguay. I knew of at least half a dozen countries where he was wanted but didn’t know about that one. Actually, I wasn’t sure where it was and had to look it up.

I said last year I wasn’t quite sure what Mike did. It now seems that he’s a sort of…well, I better not say. He certainly gets things done. I think he knows more about these things than he’s letting on. Tell the truth, for most of this year we adopted a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach.

What bothers me is that’s where things got to with Simon towards the end. I didn’t ask S because I didn’t know there was anything to ask about and he didn’t tell because he wanted to protect himself. Now, there are a lot of things I’d like to ask Mike and a lot of things he isn’t telling me because, perhaps, he wants to protect me. I think that’s better – but, either way, I seem to be one step behind the game. Big time, as matters have proved.

Now, having S in jail half-way round the world causes some problems. First: well – he was my husband and I was kind of responsible for what happened to him (note to self – he was responsible…). Even so.

Number two, we have four children and although they haven’t directly asked for details, I can sense questions bubbling up. All I’ve said is “daddy did some silly things and he’s in prison in South America.” Increasingly this isn’t satisfying anyone. We’re due A Serious Talk pretty soon, whether with or without Mike I can’t decide. Something else to look forward to at Christmas.

Third – now, this is creepy. Two weeks ago, I got a postcard from, of all places, Gibraltar. It said: “I know what you did. I’ll be coming for you when I get out. S.”

I know – two questions. Was it Simon’s handwriting? And, what did Mike think? The first is that I’m not sure. Simon is able, for some reason, to write with either hand. He broke his thumb when he was at school so also learned the other way. Some things he always did with his left hand, like brushing his teeth, eating and using a knife and a mouse. His left-handwriting is perfectly legible but varies depending on what he’s writing with – so hard to tell if this was him. I asked Mr Google and apparently you can’t say for sure which hand’s been used. Another mystery.

As for the second, what Mike thinks, I haven’t told him. Why? Somehow feel this is something I have to solve on my own. Also – well, read on, peeps.

Anyway – the big news this year has been Operation Fiona. I said last year that Mike “happened to know” the US Feds were planning a clampdown on west-coast cults, of which there were, as you might expect, loads. A Senator’s son had got snarled up in one, which tilted the balance and secured funding. It seemed Mike could get himself involved “on the IT side.” One evening we opened a bottle of red and talked through how this might work with The Children of the Sun. About twenty minutes in, yours truly had a bit of a b-wave.

The big problem, I said, aside from contacting people in the cult at all, was getting them to talk about what was going on, and so get evidence. It seemed, though, that this one had quite a lot of people from south-east Asia – Including Thailand? I asked.

Yes, Mike said.

Were they ever allowed out? Some were, he said, to distribute leaflets, for instance.

OK, I said, how about this.

We get the gendarmes to arrest a couple of Thai members for something trivial when they’re in town. They’re hauled down to the precinct where we’re waiting, dressed up as US security goons. We say neither of us speaks a word of Thai and so produce an interpreter. Through us, they ask questions, mentioning a blonde English girl who used to be called Fiona but is now called Moon Shadow or something crazy, and an American male formerly known as Chuck Chandler III.

Then, the interpreter gets a phone call and has to leave for a bit. We’re left with them. They’re not trained hoods. They’re worried and frightened and, hopefully, convinced we don’t understand what they’re saying. We go to a corner of the room to “rhubarb, rhubarb” in English and hope they’re going to say something to each other in Thai which might help. Once we’ve got what we need, if we do, we text the interpreter, who returns. We ask a couple more questions that reveal it’s all been a misunderstanding and they’re released without charge.

Simple, quick and cheap – if it works. If it doesn’t, nothing lost and we think of something else.

Hang on, Mike said: we could just put a tape recorder in the interview room?

They’re amateurs, I said, but they’re not stupid. If all their interviewers left them alone together, they might suspect a tape recorder and keep shtum. However, being left with two people who as far as they knew understood no word of Thai and who didn’t seem interested in them might make them feel the whole deal wasn’t that serious. This therefore might, possibly, produce the opposite result.

Mike was impressed. He made a few calls: and that, my dears, is why two weeks later he and I, dressed up as Californian cops, were interrogating three Thai nationals (two F, one M, as the charge sheet said) in Barstow, CA.

My plan worked like a dream. It was clear from what they said that Fi was there. Ditto Chuck. We also got a name (“Paul”) and a rough description (tall, ginger hair) of a man who seemed a big wheel in the cult who came into town once a month or so to go the bank. This gave the real police an account to look into.

So, five days later, Paul was nicked in the Barstow Wells Fargo. At the same time, a SWAT team (that was what they looked like from out vantage point in an unmarked car opposite the ashram’s gates) stormed in, swept up Paul’s laptop and files and did a quick house-to-house for Fi and Chuck.

I suggested they pull in a few others as well, to camouflage the real reason for selecting them. The chances were, I said, that the cult would collapse as a result of Paul’s arrest and any information that this might reveal: but there was a chance he wasn’t the real top dog and that some revenge mission might be organised – it would never do for the son of a Senator to be caught up in that. The Feds seemed impressed with this reasoning.

So, three other cultees were deposited shivering and shaking in Barstow nick (I tried to explain to the Feds what “nick” meant but I don’t think the term will catch on there) and subjected to spurious questioning about money-laundering and people-trafficking. Chuck was spirited away in daddy’s helicopter. We high-tailed it across the desert to LAX and at 10pm were taking off for Heathrow at the end of the most fulfilling and exciting week of my life.

Since we got back, Fi has been drifting round in a kind of a blur. Neither she nor Tam tell me much about what they’ve been through. If they tell each other, I’m not aware of it. Ben (just 18) and Hugo (just 12) have about as much to say to each other as do any brothers whose recent lives have seen them living apart for several years: and who are, when’s all said and done, young males and so not exactly emotionally gushing. All this doesn’t make for a merry household. There was an awful dinner recently at which no one said anything for about three minutes. Four years ago, none of them would have stopped talking.

Two other things about the boys. First, Ben said he fancied studying history at university. Mike said he knew the Admissions Tutor or the Master or the Under-Praelector or whatever at Queens’ College Cambridge (he joked, in a non-joking kind of way, that they’re quite fussy about where the apostrophe goes so I told Ben to get that right when he applied). He’s recently been offered a place.

Second, there was the problem of Hugo’s fees, my sister Lucy in Godalming happy to have him for the odd weekend but understandably unwilling to contribute to Charterhouse’s appalling and frequent invoices. Turns out Mike also knows a big-wig there and a scholarship miraculously appeared for two years, to be renewed “at the discretion of the trustees.”

I’m still a bit stunned by all this. Three years ago, my daughters were various kinds of prisoners and my sons were waifs, unwillingly living with unwilling relatives. Now, largely thanks to this man I barely know a few years ago, they’re back. The boys seem fine. The girls are work in progress but at least they’re here, in body if not entirely in spirit. Both seem broken. But I’m going to fix them.

Biggest bombshell came last week.

Mike and I were were sitting down with a bottle (white this time) and he asked what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. He really met me three years ago as a dizzy and disjointed mother in extremis. Now I was a fluent Thai speaker, a dispassionate planner of operations, an effective actor in high-stake and real-life dramas and a general cool head – all this, he suggested, made me ideal for a certain kind of work.

I kind of knew what he was talking about but couldn’t bring myself to accept that I was being recruited to be a…well, I couldn’t say the word, even to myself.

He got up, opened another bottle and refilled our glasses (that’s one of the things I like about him: S veered from being raging drunk to periods of “nil by mouth” puritanical abstinence. I don’t know which I found the worse.)

Everything was, he pointed out, in the gift of someone else. Tam’s case could be re-opened and extradition proceedings launched. It was possible, though unlikely, that Fi’s time with The Children of the Sun could result in charges for being complicit: after all, she had written to friends about how wonderful the place was, one of whom – a ballistics expert – had subsequently joined up. Hugo’s arrangements, were only for two years. As for Ben, people had been sent down from Cambridge for the most trivial things.

The fact was never stated but he had me in his power. The matter of Simon was raised a few times. I had the chance to mention the postcard. I didn’t. Perhaps I should have. But I needed to keep something back that was mine, even if it was bad. After all, if Mike had every part of me in his hand, where would I be then? I’m not sure where I am now – but at least all my children are in a better place. That’s all that I care about. Back in 2015, I thought they were set fair for ever. Not the case. I’m not going to go through that hell again.

Part of our new and ill-defined relationship demanded that he wouldn’t tell me what he wanted me to do, but that I had to ask. I poured an inch more wine – I felt I was going to need it, though I already knew pretty much how he was going to answer – and asked him what he wanted me to do.

And then he told me.

Look – I’ve said too much already. These annual emails are a kind of confession. Sorry all. I don’t want to burden you with stuff you can’t deal with. Then again, I can’t take all this on my own shoulders.

God knows what’s going to happen now. Hopefully, this time next year I’ll be able to tell you more – or at least tell you that I’m still alive. Fi, Tam, Ben and Hugo are all OK and that’s all that really matters. It seems that I have to make a few more life changes of my own in order to keep it that way…

xxx

Christmas 2023

This time last year I was caught in an elegant trap, partly of Mike’s making and partly of my own. I was also getting menacing postcards written by someone who might or might not have been Simon. The kids were kind of sorted, the girls in a suspended-sentence kind of way and the boys in a more stable position that was, even so, one bad throw of the dice from landing on a snake and crashing all the way down to the bottom of the board. It was like a horror film where you think that if you stay absolutely still, the monster won’t see you. But you can’t stay still. Life goes on. At some point, you have to breathe.

And, to put it mildly, peeps, this year has not gone to plan either. Not that there ever was a plan.

The kids: let’s start with them. Tam recovered from her ordeal in Thailand with surprising speed, or so it seemed. In April, only four months after she was released, she announced that she’d started training to be a counsellor, or a therapist: I’m not sure she’s clear about the distinction. I’m certainly not. Nor am I sure if this is a good thing for her to be doing right now.

One thing I do know is that you have to spend a lot of time in therapy yourself, which might be no bad thing. She’s started a distance-learning course with a college in Northampton and spends a lot of time in her room as a result. Not quite sure what I think of this either but wasn’t given any chance to object. Not, at 25, that she’d have paid attention. Part of me is glad that she doesn’t think she needs to get my approval, after everything that happened. None the less, it’s nice be asked. A fine line, all in all.

An even finer one being trod (trodden?) with Fi. In June – clearly after having steeled herself for days – she announced she was lesbian and had a partner and it was fantastic and the sex was wonderful and there you are, what was I going to do about it? I was less worried by the message – we’d been through this during her brief spell at Oxford when she was “fluid binary non-gender” – than by the way it was delivered: with a mixture of anger (at me), guilt (at herself) and sorrow (at everything). I said, darling, that’s fine and I’m so glad you’re happy. Wrong thing, apparently, and she stormed out.

A week later, verging on the hysterical and a bit pissed, she braced me again. She wasn’t gay, that was all a horrible mistake and she’s now seeing this lovely man called Tom and everything’s simply lovely. I repeated my response to the previous announcement, to be greeted with the same reaction.

A month passed. Then, it turned out, Tom was off the menu due to, it appeared, nothing more than being half an hour late to meet her in a bar. Instead, she was now in a threesome To be honest, I didn’t want the details of this. Is it the kind of thing one tells one’s mother? Squirming, I tried to listen. The two other participants, Bat and Alex could have been male or female or anything in-between. The more she explained, the less I understood and the more cross she got.

Then, she said, there was her name. Her name? Yes, she’d changed her name. She was now, she announced, Victoria.

“But,” I said, being perhaps rather more precise than I should have been, “that’s already your name, your middle name.”

“Now,” she said, “it’s my name. I don’t have a middle name any more.”

This was, perhaps, a code for something else I didn’t understand. Five minutes later, I referred to her as “Fiona”. “Now you’re deadnaming me,” she said.

I asked her to explain but she was already off down the stairs.

I’m not sure how much more of this I can take.

Ben. Well, yes. Place at Queens’ (got the apostrophe right) Cambridge in the bag, grace à Mike, and he was off for his gap trip in June. To, if you please, the Falklands and Argentina, to do sheep farming in the first and volunteering and learning Spanish in the second. I said this was interesting combination.

“Why?” he asked.

“Well,” I said, shaken but not stirred, “because of the war.”

“What war?”

I rather gave up at this point. Perhaps it was better he didn’t know. Even so, a modern history course…I found myself wondering what had passed at the interview. Had there been an interview? Again, my thoughts returned to Mike.

And so to Hugo. Absolutely happy to admit that I’d for many years marked him down as the weak one in the pack. However, watch this – fifteen years old and he’s invented an app which does something for guitarists, to do with transposing chords, that’s gone big. Three months ago he slightly shamefacedly admitted that, although his GCSE results weren’t going to look that great, he was well on his way to becoming a millionaire.

And one more thing.  After the new-year’s-day debacle with his father in Ealing in 2019, his right arm has never been quite right, if you see what I mean. One day, I suggested that he might try to play left-handed. I can’t do anything with my left hand except change gear but I thought he might. He poo-pooed the idea at first. Then I bought him a left-handed guitar and left him to it. Now, it seems he’s mastered it – and a near-millionaire into the bargain.

So: that’s them. Now for the men.

First, those postcards. They kept coming. Gibraltar first, late last year: then in January, one from Madrid; Toulouse and then La Rochelle in February; Rouen and Caen in March; and finally Winchester on, of all days, 1 April. All said pretty much the same thing, variations of “I know what you did. I’ll be coming for you when I get out. S.” The difference was that, after Gibraltar, the last four words were missing. And, at that point, the postcards stopped.

Geography may not be my strongest suit but I know that Uruguay, where Mike said S was in prison, and Gibraltar are a long way from each other. The “when I get out” from Gib meant he was in prison there. Why? Why was he there and why had he been released so early? And why was he sending creepy postcards at intervals that suggested he was coming back to England by foot?

I pondered this for a long time.

I may have hinted in my last letter that I have…changed career. That doesn’t make sense as I never had a career before. I have, well, become something. That’s as much as I think I can safely say. I can add that, for this reason or not, I now find myself able to access information that five years ago I wouldn’t have even known existed.

The time has come to speak of Mike. In the early part of the year we’d been working, sometimes together and sometimes not, on a project that has nothing to do with this. I was in Holland a good deal and he in Spain. When we met and spent time together there was a lot of silence. It was like we couldn’t discuss what was happening because it was all need-to-know; we couldn’t discuss my past because we’d done that so much and lived through it and I was dealing with the results; and we couldn’t discuss the future – or I couldn’t – because of this power that he’d so slightly and effectively hinted at late last year. Like I said at the top, peeps, I just needed to keep as still as a statue, or else.

The problem was that this postcard business was wearing me down. To make it worse, Mike was asking whether I’d heard from Simon. His questions seemed increasingly agitated. Then he would drop it for a week or so. Then it was back on the menu again.

I sensed, by about mid-March, that he wasn’t just concerned for me. Once or twice, shortly after these interrogations, I casually introduced Gibraltar into our conversation – not an easy thing to do (try). Each time, this was met with a quickening of interest. So then I had to mention other small countries – Andorra, Tuvalu, Macau – to make the remark seem more general. He would ask me what I meant. We were circling each other like sharks.

My researches suggested some unwelcome truths. Simon had never been in Uruguay at all. There was a UK government base at Windmill Hill in Gibraltar, used as a semi-neutral base for dealing with criminals whose crimes were of particular international interest to HMG. Often the people are re-educated – my paraphrase – and then, a long way short of their original prison term in whatever jurisdiction they had offended, played back into the murky world in which their crimes had been committed. The bonus for the country in which they should have done time was first dibs at any intelligence, preferential treatment at the next round of trade talks or whatever and avoiding the cost of incarceration. I also proved that in at least one case there had been a cash payment, seven figures into the private account of a minister. Deep waters, as Sherlock Holmes would have said.

Further investigations suggested something even more remarkable: Simon was still in Gibraltar. It therefore followed that he hadn’t written, or at least posted, the postcards except perhaps for the first. Whoever had done so had known his handwriting, with either hand, and my address. They also knew that there was something I’d done which had resulted in his being in prison. All rather narrows the field.

Then there was our sex life (my word, Pippa and Bet, I bet you never thought you’d hear me being frank about this subject). Well, don’t worry, I’m not going to be. It was simply turning into a punishment and reward deal. A lot of headaches were fabricated and, round about May, the whole business pretty much stopped. Not quite separate beds but – well, ’nuff said.

Then this. I looked at the postcards quite often in case I’d missed some clue. I always returned them in chronological order in their pile and shoved them under the bras and knickers. One day I discovered two had been transposed and one was the wrong way up. Therefore, someone knew I’d received them. Not hard to guess who.

By complete chance, I met an old acquaintance who’d been at Oxford with Mike. He mentioned his name first – which made me think at first that he too was in the same world as us and he’d been sent to test my discretion – and I replied in kind, saying merely that I’d run across him a few times. He described him as a control freak, and a bit creepy, and that he’d effectively blackmailed a fellow undergrad into continuing a relationship. He then told me another story about someone from a different mutual world which I knew to be true, which rather inclined me to believe the first one. Food for thought.

I put two and two and two together and came up with what seemed like six. My theory was that S had written the first card and Mike had seen it – and after I’d seen it as otherwise he’d have destroyed it as it undermined the lie he was in Uruguay. This gave him the idea of how he could start gaslighting me. He therefore wrote the others. He had spent time in Spain and France early in the year.

This made frightening sense. Simon was a man of intense but brief enthusiasms and would never have kept such a plot going.

Whether I told Mike about these or not, which I hadn’t, was a test. I was therefore on my own – but with four kids on my hands still. All were now in some kind of stability, and in the girls’ case at liberty, because of Mike.

No – sod that. I’d been involved as well. I was the one who moved to Bangkok and batted for Tam when no one else was. I came up with the plan for the Californian gendarmes to pull Fi /Victoria out of the clutches of the Children of the Sun. I rescued Ben from his grandfather. I bought Hugo the left-handed guitar. So.

Then Mike was off for two months to Africa which made me take stock. Then I took a decision.

Family meeting in late September, all five of us gathered together for the first time in God knows how long.

“We’re moving out,” I said.

There was a look round at Mike’s – yes it was Mike’s – comfortable dwelling. Each voiced the various blackmails that tied us to it. I hadn’t been aware that they were quite as aware. Seemed Mike had told them separately, which rather confirmed my view of what was going on.

A lot of discussion. Everyone, quite reasonably, worried about their liberty, legal threats, university place and school fees. I said I’d fight tooth and nail to make everything as good as it could be. I didn’t mention that I had my own work problem to deal with by bailing out. But these four came first, always will.

“As you always have, mum,” Tam said, and gave me a hug. Best moment of the year. Then Ben started blubbing a bit as well.

“Look,” I said. “We’re going to do this a family. This time with Mike has run its course. I’m going to look after you all and we’re all going to look after each other. But the thing is, this has to be unanimous. We all have to want to do it. As a family.”

“What about dad?” Ben asked.

That set us back a bit. Everyone looked at Tam, who was the one who’d really been wronged by him. There was a long pause. “Let’s see,” she finally said.

I nodded and looked at all of them. “Show of hands,” I said. All five into the air. “Right,” I said, “we’re off to…”

I’m afraid I can’t say where. Nor should you think that the postmark on this is the final destination. It was just convenient for us to stop over in a Crown Colony on the southern tip of Spain for a couple of days as we all had a bit of unfinished business to attend to there…

XXXX

Brian Quinn

• For further stories and articles, please click here
• For songs, please click here

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